Friday, March 28, 2014

Game Rehab: Call of Duty

If you're a piece of serialised media, make enough money and your consumers will have... interesting feelings about you.  And given this criterion, no franchise has a more polarised, factionalised consumer base than... Sonic the Hedgehog.  But I'm actually writing about Call of Duty, the first-person shooter series inspired by real and prospective military flashpoints of the past, present and future.  From its humble beginnings as a World War II-themed game, already following the coattails of other such titles, to the world-shattering Modern Warfare trilogy, Call of Duty has become the model for many other video games, both shooters and in other genres, trying to make it big.
  • Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003): The first game.  Set in the European theatre of World War II, the story mode alternates at certain points between American, British, and Soviet characters in their combined advance against the Nazi war machine.
    • Call of Duty: Finest Hour (Spark/Exakt, 2004): A spin-off of the first game for consoles.
  • Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward, 2005): Also set in WWII.  A launch title for the XBox 360.
    • Call of Duty 2: Big Red One (Treyarch, 2005): A spin-off of the first game for consoles, and a sequel to Finest Hour.
  • Call of Duty 3 (Treyarch, 2006): Also set in WWII.  The first main-series game not made by Infinity Ward, kicking off the series' tradition of swapping developers every other year.
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007): The first game exclusively developed for seventh-generation consoles (PlayStation 3, XBox 360, etc.).  Set in the near future, the story mode involves an American Army Rangers unit pursuing a nuclear-armed dictator in an unspecified middle-eastern land, and a British SAS task force pursuing his Russian partner in crime.  Also pioneered an online multiplayer mode, where players earn experience points to unlock new weapons and items.
  • Call of Duty: World at War (Treyarch, 2008): Returns the series to a World War II setting, specifically the Pacific Theatre.  Introduced the "Nazi Zombies" survival mode.
  • Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009): Arguably where the franchise jumped the shark.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, 2010): A spin-off set in the Cold War-era 1960s, loosely connected plot-wise to World at War.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, 2011): Finishes the story from MW2.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012): A launch title for the Wii U.  The setting alternates between the 1980s Cold War and the not-to-distant future.  In a series first, the single-player campain features a branching storyline with multiple endings.
  • Call of Duty: Ghosts (Infinity Ward, 2013): A launch title for the PlayStation 4 and XBox One.  The story is a new one set in the present-day, about an invasion of a South American federation against the United States.
As you can see, CoD has been a very busy franchise, with new games coming out faster than once a year for an entire decade.  So with a schedule like that, it stands to reason that they don't have the time to innovate too much -- and therein lies the problem that many people see in it, myself included.  Now bear in mind: even though I was raised on shooters like Goldeneye 007 and pine for those days, I don't hate CoD on principle.  There's a time and place for different takes on the first-person shooter genre.  But if you're going to do one thing, you might as well do it to the best of your ability.  These are my suggestions for fixing the franchise, categorised into points specific to Call of Duty, and suggestions for the genre as a whole, both for single-player and multi-player experiences.

For the Call of Duty franchise specifically:
  • Your stories need to take some Ritalin.  More so with the newer entries, CoD games have a bad habit of dropping you in a different warzone for each level, with the battle du jour already in medias res.  Whilst the Modern Warfare trilogy carried on the original games' tradition of multiple parallel storylines, they jump between them with haphazard abandon.  For example, in MW2, there's a mission with a British SAS task force tracking down an arms dealer in Rio de Janeiro, followed by a mission in suburban Virginia where a bunch of Army Rangers come under fire by Russian paratroopers.  Then another mission with the SAS.  Then another with the Rangers.  Pray tell, what was wrong with keeping the SAS and Rangers missions together?
  • Try to keep a consistent tone, specifically in the portrayal of war.  Not all the games fell in this trap, mind you.  The WW2-era CoD games gave off an appropriate amount of patriotism, because by now we've all accepted the Nazi regime was a bad thing.  And CoD4 updated its portrayal of war for the post-Iraq era, minus the oil.  But then MW2 and MW3 come around, and things get a little... simpler.  Like the Brosnan-era Bond films, there's too much of an emphasis on explosive setpieces.  It almost makes war look awesome... and then you die, and the respawn screen pops up with a real-life inspirational quote on the nature of war.  Umm... am I supposed to walk away from my controller with the opinion that war is good or bad?
  • Be a little more even-handed and realistic in portaying the world's superpowers.  Oh my, the Russians are invading America and Western Europe?  What is this, 1984?  Okay, so the real Russia is a point of concern these days, to say the least, but the game goes out of its way to say it's not the Moscow government's fault.  That's considerate and all, but it feels like going out of your way to be "safe".  I'd prefer it if you either implicated the Kremlin directly, or chose a completely different antagonist force.  ...On second thought, that didn't work for Ghosts -- come on, South America isn't really that jealous of our freedoms and our kill-sats, right?  I mean, we've still got allies down there!  Which brings me to my next point:
  • As for the other side, America doesn't have to go it alone, you know.  The early CoD games were somewhat innovative in letting us play as characters from different nations.  And in these post-Iraq days of America being seen as a renegade force, we might as well buck that trend.  Even now, the USA has a lot of allies, so why not let them get in on the action?
    • And don't think of killing off those player characters when you're done with them, that habit's getting ridiculous.
  • Either cool it with the "shocking moments", or have them mean something.  For those unaware, the games in the Modern Warfare trilogy boast certain shocking, and often controversial scenes meant for some kind of emotional impact.  In CoD4, the player character dies slowly after getting caught in a nuclear explosion; in MW2, he goes undercover with a terrorist group as they raid a Moscow airport and massacre civillians; and in MW3, the Russians launch a series of chemical weapon attacks across Western Europe -- from the point of view of a tourist family.  Of these, I'd wager the first one made the best impact because A) it was unskippable, and B) it was the first one of its kind.  As for the others, well, they come across as a more contrived effort to tug at our heartstrings.  Plus, they give you the option to skip them beforehand without penalty, and I have to give them credit for thinking about the people who might be offended by them, but that's just it: it's all too well-calculated, too focused on mass appeal to have any real impact.  I mean, look at Spec Ops: The Line (PS3/X360, 2012): you don't have any choice but to launch the white phosphorus, and you don't know that you killed civilians with it until it's too late.  I'd go further in detail, but that game warrants its own review.  And besides, having this stunt pulled on us once every two years puts a damper on its intended effects.  (And no, I haven't played Ghosts, so I have no idea if they've bucked this trend.)
  • Don't give us special items only to restrict their use.  One of the things the CoD single-player campaigns like to do is give us a go with all manner of military hardware -- night-vision goggles, airstrikes, vehicles, turrets, robots, and as of Ghosts, playable attack dogs -- only to yank them from our hands after a minute or two.  These sorts of things often become the highlights of whatever level they're featured in, but when you give us something so fun, we'll just chafe at the limitations you impose upon them.
For single-player shooters in general:
  • Let us carry more than two guns at a time.  Sure, it was weird when you thought about how, say, James Bond in Goldeneye 007 (N64, 1997) could carry dozens of guns at once.  But to paraphrase that Passenger song, you only miss a hyperspace arsenal when you've only got two weapon slots.  Yes, Halo popularised this trend, but it worked (to some extent) in that game because there were so few weapons to be had (I count eight).  Meanwhile, your average post-Modern Warfare CoD game boasts dozens of guns -- many of them similar, mind you, I'll get to that next -- and without the ability to carry them all as you go, you might ditch one and not find the same one again for quite some time.
  • On that note, having a wide variety of guns is great on paper, but if you're going to do so, at least make all your weapons distinct.  Having 5 or more guns of a particular class means nothing if they all behave the same.  Your average Joe six-shooter won't understand the subtleties that set the M4 and M16 apart from each other, for example.  Otherwise, all this variety might overload us, and we'll have no reason not to just forgo it all and just stick with what we're arbitrarily provided with at the start -- especially if you give us more ammo than we'll ever need.
  • Don't regenerate our health.  Pardon me for being raised on games that actually carried the risk of making you start over if you goofed up enough, but the way I see it, giving us free refills on health points lessens the challenge below the level of reason.  Again, we have Halo (XBox, 2001) to blame for this trend, but it was handled better there: your health does not regenerate (unless you find health power-ups), but you have a shield on top of that which does recharge.  Granted, this sci-fi technology won't work for every setting, but maybe it's a sign that we didn't need this sort of thing in the first place.
  • Don't "force" us to use iron-sight aiming.  I know you're perfectly able to fire "from the hip", or without looking down the sights, but apparently you're much less accurate when you do.  In fact, the tutorial level from MW2, where you and your captain train a bunch of Afghan security forces, hammers this in rather blatantly.  Yes, I know it's good gun etiquette in the real world to look in the sights to hit the target you want, but I didn't boot up a video game to be subject to the same rules I can experience in my own world.  And I think I'd get a bit more efficiency out of my gaming session if I didn't have to waste half a second of aiming animation every time I wanted to shoot something.
  • Don't remind us when to reload.  I've started noticing this a lot in shooters lately: when my magazine is down to its last few rounds, a small notice will pop up on the screen telling me to reload and which button I may do it with.  Umm, if it's no offence to you, I'll reload when I dang well please!  Certain CoD games, MW2 in particular, are even worse in this regard: they outright tell you, "You are hurt.  Find cover!" when your HP (temporarily) drops close to zero.  Yeah, as if the throbbing redness taking over my screen didn't indicate that I'm in dire straights!
  • And do we really need objective markers all over the place?  Yes, missing an out-of-the-way objective when we didn't even know what to look for is one thing.  But shepherding us around like we're idiots is boring, insulting even.
For multi-player shooters in general:
  • Let us choose our own matches.  In some games (i.e. the PC version of CoD4), when you search for multiplayer matches you get a list of results which you can choose from.  But in others (i.e. the console versions of MW2), you just pick your mode and the game chooses the "best" match for you automatically.  The way they do this, it tends to lead to much longer wait times when there aren't enough good connections going about.  This may be a difference between PC and console gaming in general, but I for one value transparency in this sort of thing.  It wouldn't be to much to show console gamers what matches are available -- or better yet, give us the option to do both.
  • NEVER make multiplayer-exclusive Achievements.  CoD in particular doesn't have this problem, but numerous other online-enabled games these days, and shooters especially, fall victim to this trap.  See, if your servers don't get enough use, odds are you'll end up like 007 Legends (PS3/X360/Wii U, 2012), where you'll everyone only seems to want to play the regular Team Deathmatch -- and that's only if anyone's online at the moment.  And that's the best-case-scenario -- it's possible for the multiplayer servers to be switched off completely, rendering those acheivements unwinnable forever.  See Homefront (PS3/X360, 2011) for an example of that -- or rather, don't.
  • Bring back AI bots for offline multiplayer.  Again, the multiplayer servers aren't going to stay up forever, and some of us don't have friends to call up for split-screen games.  That's the reason I have more fond memories of multiplayer in The World Is Not Enough (N64, 2000) or Nightfire (PS2/GCN/XBox, 2002) as opposed to Goldeneye 007.
And last but not least, take a break for a couple of years!  Nothing hurts a series more than wearing out its welcome.  And series publisher Activision's no stranger to this phenomenon, either.  They've already run the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero series to the ground with their egregious sequelising, and the way I see it, Call of Duty will be their next casualty.  ...Aw, who am kidding?  Activision's not gonna heed my warnings.  all they care about is money.  ...Welp, it's never too late to heed my warnings, and send Call of Duty away for some game rehab.


Yeah, title drop!!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Music Review: Timber

  • Artist: Pitbull featuring Ke$ha
  • Album: Meltdown [EP]
  • Release: 7 October 2013
  • Genre: Pop / Dance / Hip-hop
  • Writers: Kesha Sebert, Armando C. "Pitbull" PĂ©rez, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, Priscilla Hamilton, Jamie "Sermstyle" Sanderson, Breyan Stanley Isaac, Henry "Cirkut" Walter, Pebe Sebert, Lee Oskar, Keri Oskar, Greg Errico
  • ProducersDr. Luke, Cirkut, Sermstyle

Folks, I have a lot of explaining to do.  I actually like a Pitbull song.  I dare say it's even a guilty pleasure of mine.  And don't say I didn't warn you, either; I brought it up on my list of honourable mentions for my Best Hit Songs of 2013.  Welp, since it's still going strong as of the time I write this -- it's since peaked at #1 -- and since I don't see it making my best-of-2014 list either, I might as well dig myself deeper by digging into this song.

So what could've attracted me to "Timber" more so than any other of Pitbull's songs over the past few years?  Maybe because technically speaking, it's a Pitbull song featuring Ke$ha.  As I admitted previously, I have a soft spot for the girl.  I mean, yes, she does at times sound like she's vomiting glitter into your ears.  But especially since her last album, she's managed to keep her obnoxiousness under control.  So how does she fare this time around?  Let's take a look at the chorus, and the thesis presented therein:
It's going down, I'm yelling "timber"
You better move, you better dance
The key point of this song is the phrase "it's going down", in relation to the party du jour.  And to punctuate said point, they added "I'm yelling 'timber'", as a lumberjack would when he or she has cut a tree and it's about to fall.  As in go down, literally.  Like the party, figuratively.  ...Sorry I had to explain the joke, I must've underestimated your intelligence for a moment.

Well, how 'bout something even I didn't know?  Let's examine that harmonica-led track in the back.  It doesn't sound like any sample I've ever heard.  But it turns out that it is, in fact, a pre-existing riff.  It comes to us from a song called "San Francisco Bay" by the Danish harmonica player and former War member Lee Oskar.  (The version on "Timber" was re-performed by session musician Paul Harrington.)  What does this song have to do with the mood which "Timber" attempts to evoke?  Naught is my guess.  Just like another Pitbull song I reviewed.  Yes, "Back In Time"'s use of "Love Is Strange" was totally incongruous, having nothing to do with the former's association with Men In Black 3.  But whilst no one in their sane mind would relate "San Francisco Bay" with some redneck hoedown like Pitbull & co. seemed to do, they used just the right parts of the song to enhance the experience.  Slowly but surely, they may just be learning the meaning of the word "subtlety".

Those of you who remember one of the other Pitbull songs I've reviewed -- in this case, "Feel This Moment" -- may remember that it did something I liked: namely, use a sample from "Take On Me", in an awesome, pulse-pounding way.  But disappointment quickly set in when the verses did -- not just because Pitbull had to go and open up his big fat mouth, but also because all the musical momentum that had built up over those glorious thirty seconds came to a screeching halt.  And then the transition from the first verse to the chorus killed the momentum again.  And so on.  Well, I have good news: "Timber" does not share its predecessor's problem.  There are no slow segments to be found this time around, ensuring that beat is pulse-pounding throughout.  In fact, with a running time of 3:24, this is a rather trim song with no unnecessary instrumental breaks or anything.  Part of me can appreciate that, given whom we're dealing with.

But even if Pitbull's obscure choice of sample (assuming it was his call) could fool me into thinking that he's kicked his crippling addiction to sampling, his unique habit of sampling lyrics from other rap songs throws a proverbial wrench into the proverbial works.  In "Timber", he's guilty of two such offences: first, this line:
Face down, booty up
That's the way we like to (what?)
is a cleaned-up version of a line from 2 Live Crew's "Face Down, [noun] Up".  And there's also this:
We about to drown (why?)
'Cause it's -- about -- to go -- down
in which the latter line is from Jay-Z's "Give It To Me (I Just Wanna Love You)".  Okay, I will admit this part was kind of awesome, I guess because of the staccato delivery.  And Pitbull & co. can't even take credit for that, the original song did that sort of thing too.  Besides, borrowing lines from ther rappers isn't the reason I've harboured as much hatred as I have for the man.  He's got other problems.  For instance, his repertoire of references extends to celebrities themselves:
I have 'em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off
Twerking in their bras and thongs, timber
Aw, dangit man!  I was trying to forget about the Twerktastrophe of 2013!  And the fact that we've even given that random act such a cute name is a sign that our culture is focusing its attention on the wrong things, but that's a rant for another day.  So, what else ya got?
I'm slicker than an oil spill
Huh.  Remember when Pitbull did that line about "flooding like New Orleans", which I sarcastically honoured as the worst line he's ever spit?  I would cry foul at this line, too, having the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in mind, but that line is non-specific enough that I think I could give it a pass.  After all, oil spills anywhere in the world tend to occur more frequently than flooding in any one particular city.  Either way, I've surprised myself with how little I was offended by this or indeed any line from this song.  Maybe it's because of his relative absence, or because other rappers like Lil' Wayne showed just how low the bar could be set, but I'm not even as annoyed at Pitbull as I used to be.  For example, let's go back to the "flooding like New Orleans" line.  For any other bad rapper, that would only make the back half of the list, if at all.  On the other hand, when Pitbull says this:
She says she won't, but I bet she will
I don't picture that as a warning that he's about to date-rape some dame, and more that he's making a friendly wager with another guy that he can get some other girl to accompany him into bed of her own free will.  He is, to purloin a catchphrase from a certain intergalactic reference material, "mostly harmless".  I mean, he self-censored that 2 Live Crew line a while back!  Who else is gonna do that?  As a general rule, he's not mysoginistic, he's not threatening, he just wants to have a good time for himself.  Even if the man comes across as annoying every once in a while, in the grand scheme of things, is that such a crime?
Club jumpin' like LeBron now (Voli)
Order me another round, homie
We wrap up our whirlwind tour of worrisome writing with this wee little bit of product placement.  So, Pitbull... I see you're still vouching for Voli vodka.  Given the fate of Kodak -- you know, the brand you rather embarrassingly pimped out at the start of "Give Me Everything" -- I had hoped you'd have learned your lesson by now.  But I guess those first-class plane tickets don't pay for themselves!

Well, all product placement aside, I must admit I rather liked "Timber".  Do I think it's a good song?  ...Eh, that's harder to answer.  It's true that the path of the party song is fully well-worn, so if you're seeking some great insight into the human condition, look elsewhere.  But here's the thing: no one expects the party song to provide such insight; they just want to put it on to have fun.  And any party song that can serve as a consistent source of fun is a good party song.  See, I don't know about you, but in judging things, most especially songs, I try to take into account both the effort that went into it, and the reactions it instills in me as a consumer.  I mean, that's the point of entertainment as a whole, no?  If Pitbull's just gonna go off and do his own thing, he might as well improve at whatever that thing is.  And doggone it, I consider "Timber" an improvement.

Music: 4 out of 5
Lyrics: 2 out of 5
Performance: 4 out of 5
The Call: 3 out of 5 (C)